- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2000

MOSCOW They call themselves "the Viper Brothers," "the Software Underground Empire" and "Armageddon in Russia."

They borrow their philosophy from martial arts and Zen Buddhism. They study at the feet of a bearded guru known as "Arvi the Hacker," or simply "the Teacher."

They are the teen-age students of Russia's first school of computer hacking. And while their skills and bravado might seem dangerous, they say they are the good guys, defending their clients from an international war of viruses, hack attacks and computer crime.

The Civil Hackers' School, operating from a shabby little Moscow apartment, is helping shape the new generation of Russian computer whiz kids who have provoked fear and anxiety in the West.

Russian hackers are blamed for a series of spectacular feats in recent years: stealing secret Microsoft source codes; ransacking the Pentagon's computers; hacking into NATO Web sites; posting thousands of credit-card numbers on the Internet; and stealing millions of dollars from Western banks.

The country's post-Soviet economic collapse, combined with its rampant software piracy and its prowess in mathematics, has created a breeding ground for aggressive young hackers.

In Moscow, the Hackers' School sees itself at the forefront of a revolution.

"A hacker can do something that influences all of mankind," said the school's founder, Ilya Vasilyev, 27, a former software pirate better known on the Internet as "Arvi the Hacker."

"Every country, every company, needs hackers now," he tells his students. "You have a feeling that you can do anything. You don't have that in any other job."

Several hundred have studied at the hacker school since 1996, earning bracelets with ranks similar to judo belts. (The highest honor is a black bracelet, known as "guru level.")

The school, preaching an altruistic moral code, says it trains students for legitimate jobs in computer security, defending employers against viruses or hack attacks.

"I won't take students when I see they have a criminal tendency," Mr. Vasilyev said. "A hacker must be a wise person, like a samurai or a karate master. You have to use all of your wisdom not to harm people."

But the temptations are constant. The first lesson for freshmen students is a stern warning against illegal hacking.

"Many people read about hackers in the newspapers and they think how great it is," Mr. Vasilyev tells the teens. "But they don't read to the end of the article, where the hacker gets sentenced to jail."

The latest hacker exploit was the daring raid on Microsoft, in which the secret source codes for the latest Windows program were taken. The raider was traced back to St. Petersburg, Russia, which has become a hotbed of hacking.

Russian hackers first captured the world's imagination in 1994, when a young mathematician, Vladimir Levin, hacked into the computers of Citibank and transferred $12 million to the bank accounts of friends around the world. He conducted the entire operation from his St. Petersburg apartment.

He was eventually arrested and jailed, but others were inspired to similar feats of cyber-crime. Ilya Hoffman, a brilliant viola student at the Moscow Conservatory, was arrested in 1998 on charges of stealing $97,000 over the Internet. He served a year in jail.

Another group of Russians stole more than $630,000 by hacking into Internet retailers and grabbing credit-card numbers. Banking-fraud specialists have warned that Russian hackers are the greatest single threat to security at European banks.

"Piracy is prospering, and nobody is fighting it," said Sergei Pokrovsky, 25, editor of Khaker, a hacker magazine that has built a circulation of 50,000 in just two years.

"Pirate software is for sale everywhere. People get used to the idea that piracy is normal. Computer crimes aren't seen as very serious. The police have so many other problems on their hands. A lost credit card is seen as nothing, compared to murder and all the other crimes in this country."

Because of the shortage of high-paying computer jobs in Russia, even skilled specialists can be limited to salaries of just a few hundred dollars a month. Hacking is a tempting alternative. By stealing a password, they can use the Internet for free. And by cracking programs or doing pirate software jobs in the evening, they can boost their incomes considerably.

Some of the world's biggest Internet companies, including CompuServe and America Online, were forced to abandon Russia in 1997 because of the widespread use of stolen passwords.

Hacking can also be a political message. Hackers are active on both sides of the Chechnya war, in the ranks of the Russian secret police and in coordinated attacks on military computers in the United States and other members of NATO.

When NATO launched its bombing campaign in Yugoslavia last year, Russian hackers retaliated with their own wave of attacks on NATO member countries, breaking into their Web sites, posting anti-NATO slogans and overloading them with floods of junk e-mails.

"I supported it," Mr. Pokrovsky said. "It was an outburst of emotion. It had no practical results, but we wanted to show that we could influence the West through the Internet. It was like a banner of truth. And the hackers knew they wouldn't be punished for it. When the police caught one guy, they just congratulated him."

• Distributed by Scripps Howard.

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